Homilies for September 2017

Jesus Discourses with His Disciples by James Tissot (1836-1902)

September 3, 2017—Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: http://usccb.org/bible/readings/090317.cfm
Jer 20:7-9; Ps. 63:2, 3-4, 5-6, 8-9; Rom. 12:1-2; Mt. 16:21-27

Conversion is hard. We want to change, we want to be with God, but there is so much to do. The Psalm today speaks beautifully of our yearning for God’s presence—“my flesh pines and my soul thirsts” (Ps. 63:2). Being with God is the greatest delight we will ever know. Approaching God—conversion—is a different story. As much as we desire the destination, the journey is still arduous. We want to change our hearts, but our hearts are so used to loving in a certain way. We want to change our habits, but they can be so comfortable and inviting. We want to change ourselves, but everyone around us wants us to stay the same. Looking at the essence and origin of conversion, we can see how to draw closer to God and more fully experience His presence.

All of the readings today show us the need for conversion, and how difficult that conversion can be. Jeremiah is torn between the mockery he endures from the world for proclaiming God’s message, and the pain he endures in his heart for hiding God’s message. Peter, having just spoken of Jesus as the messiah, still struggles and falls into old ways of thinking. He tries to act out of love for Jesus, but only speaks against the Father’s will. Peter has begun the process of conversion, but has not yet fully converted. Thankfully, there is still more to come.

When Paul speaks of conversion in Romans, he is clear that we need a total conversion. He speaks of offering our “bodies as a living sacrifice” through “spiritual worship,” that worship which is guided by our minds, and is proper to thinking creatures (Rom. 12:1). Both our bodies and our minds—our whole selves—must be offered to God. That offering starts with a conversion that comes from within. Jeremiah says that he will go on proclaiming God’s message because the message “becomes like fire in my heart” (Jer. 20:9). On the other hand, Jesus criticizes Peter saying that “you are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (Mt. 16:23). When Paul tells the Romans that they need conversion, he declares to them to “be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God” (Rom. 12:2). When Paul speaks of the mind here, he uses the Greek term, nous, which is morally neutral—something that can be lowered down to be like the world, or raised up to be like God. The problem is that we are used to the world, and old habits die hard.

So how can we experience conversion? The Catholic fiction writer, Flannery O’Connor, remarked that “violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality, and preparing them to accept their moment of grace.” Most of her short stories follow this pattern: an unlikeable, hard-headed person goes through life until they have a shocking and violent experience that brings about conversion. Sometimes it is physical violence, sometimes a lecture which lays bare their flaws, but they are shocked, see reality for what it is, and change. They are shaken from their ways, and begin the long, painful process of conversion. Surely this was Peter’s experience today—imagine the shock of hearing Jesus call you Satan. One moment, Peter is a rock of strength for the Church, the next he is a stone on the path making others trip. Jesus shakes Peter in this moment. If we are to undergo the conversion that Paul speaks of, we likewise need to be shaken.

Perhaps simply looking at the evil in the larger world will shake us. Perhaps it is an evil that hits closer to home. Or perhaps we will be shaken when we look within ourselves and realize that we are not as aloof from the world as we would like to think. G.K. Chesterton famously answered the question, “What’s wrong with the world?” by saying simply “I am.” St. Augustine was shaken terribly when he was reflecting in his garden and realized that he would never have the strength on his own to follow Christ. It was an epiphany so heart-rending that it drove him to tears. Yet, it also made him realize that he could not rely on his own strength, or anything else in this world, but only on Jesus. Like Peter, and the hard-headed characters of Flannery O’Connor’s stories, it was a moment that shook him to his very core, but made him open to God’s grace.

If we are honest with ourselves, we, too, can be shaken to our cores as we consider our weakness as St. Augustine did. We can see that there are moments when, like Peter, Jesus should rightly call us “Satan.” Even considering trivial matters like how few New Year’s resolutions we’ve kept (or how long until we discarded them), can show us how infirm our wills are, and how unreliable we are. If we are honest with our lives, we will see that sin and weakness are still very much a part of the picture. We long to experience God’s love and peace, but first we must let in God’s grace. We must be shaken from our attachment to the world, and renew our minds so that we can think as God does. If we can let ourselves be shaken, we can experience the conversion of mind that Paul calls for, and experience the refreshing presence of God.
__________

September 10th, 2017—Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: http://usccb.org/bible/readings/091017.cfm
Ez. 33:7-9; Ps. 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9; Rom. 13:8-10; Mt. 18:15-20

There is a popular comic which re-surfaces, every now and again, which depicts a man sitting in front of the computer, his wife calling him to come to bed, and him saying that he has something important to deal with first. When she asks what is so important, he responds “someone is wrong on the internet.” When we see that someone is wrong, we tend to have a strong (though not always healthy) impulse to correct that person. If only they knew what we knew, they would think just like us. The more that we see the error as a personal offense against us, the more likely we are to want to say something. Left, right, and everything in between, we do like to show that our side is right. Sometimes, this can be a good thing—Thomas Aquinas noted that “true and false will in no better way be revealed and uncovered than in resistance to a contradiction.” One of the Spiritual Works of Mercy is to admonish sinners. But as the internet (and personal experience) can also clearly show us, sometimes correcting someone causes more harm than good. Today’s readings give us good guidance for what correction is merciful and truth-seeking, and what is harmful and counter-productive.

The first reading shows us that we have an unbreakable bond with those around us. Whatever they do, we are supposed to care. We are supposed to care about their actions and ideas, but more fundamentally, we are supposed to care about them. Sins are sins because they destroy us, and bring about our deaths—sometimes physical, but always spiritual. God tells Ezekiel in the first reading that if he fails to warn someone about their actions, “the wicked shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death” (Ez. 33:8). When God asks Ezekiel to warn Israel (but only on those occasions), Ezekiel is not free to say “not my problem.” The Israelites are still his kin—he is still bound to them by blood and by love. He will always care about their actions, and he will always care about them, because he loves them.

It is this bond of love which, as Paul reminds us, is the source of all our obligations to other people. Paul tells the Romans to “owe nothing to one another except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Rom. 13:8). When Jesus talks about correction, He does not speak of correcting someone we have no bond with—He says “if your brother sins against you” (Mt. 18:15). If we go about correcting someone mindful of the bond of love, with the mindset that that person is our brother (or sister), that can go a long way towards purifying our intentions. But if our intentions are not loving, then the result of the correction is even worse—the person will still be in sin, but now we will have hurt our own souls as well by acting out of something besides love.

Thankfully, most of us have an example of loving correction from our own families. When I was growing up, my mom would naturally offer me correction as needed, and sometimes (perhaps if she noted that what I wanted to wear didn’t match) I would complain. Her response? “Better you hear it from me than someone who doesn’t love you.” That should describe our motivations for correcting someone—because we love them, we want to show them a weakness before someone can exploit it. Someone who doesn’t love them. Correction in charity is an act of protection, and of shelter. It is a bandage on a wound that keeps infection from seeping in. If that is not why we are correcting someone, then we have no place in offering correction.

The steps that Jesus lays out for correcting our brethren in love can also help purify our intentions by making sure that we are not acting out of pride or a desire to grandstand. Public dispute is the last resort, not the first. The first step is very discrete—only the two parties involved speak. If the situation is resolved there, then the whole thing ends. As we prepare to offer correction to someone, we should ask ourselves: “what if the first step is successful? What if no one else on earth finds out that I have corrected that person? Will I still be happy?” This is really the correction that we should desire the most—the kind where the situation is resolved quickly and quietly. We do not correct because we want to look good, but because we love the other person. This is the difference between a work of mercy and mere grandstanding.

As with any work of mercy—spiritual or corporeal—success will always be a mixed bag. Jesus Himself says in today’s Gospel that there will be times when even the whole Church giving correction will not succeed. But if we can act with love from start to finish, and keep that love alive even when all correction fails, then there is still hope for the future. If the person corrected experiences our love throughout the experience, and knows that we still love them in the end, they might want to come around eventually. If the bonds of love still exist, then there can still be a relationship, there can still be some measure of personal influence on the other. And in the end, we can at least say to God “I have loved and cared about all of Your creatures, even when that care was not appreciated.” People will continue to be wrong—on the internet and elsewhere. Whatever we do, and whether we offer correction or not, we can at least act to keep love alive.
_____________

September 17th, 2017—Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: http://usccb.org/bible/readings/091017.cfm
Sir. 27:30-28:7; Ps. 103:1-2, 3-4, 9-10, 11-12; Rom. 14:7-9; Mt. 18:21-35

Grudges are satisfying while we are thinking about them, but they leave a horrible aftertaste. As we nurse them, we are able to think of all the ways we are right and superior. When we are done thinking over the offending scenario, however, we are simply left with frustration and anger that we only want to be rid of. The problem is that we think of how right we are in the moment, and we relish that feeling for as long as it lasts—until the crash afterwards. It is the paradox that Sirach identifies in the first reading today: “Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight” (Sir. 27:30). We despise what we are holding onto, but cannot resist holding onto it.

Even setting aside the problem of feeling horrible after each time we nurse a grudge, there is the far greater problem that Sirach reminds us of: that “the vengeful will suffer the Lord’s vengeance” (Sir. 28:1). The more we relish in the details of others sins against us, the more the Lord will remember the details of our sins against Him. Our very salvation is at stake if we do not let go of our anger. We will spend this life tormenting ourselves with bitter feelings towards those who have harmed us, only to be tormented even further in the life to come. We need to let go, we want to let go, but we do not always know how to let go. Yet there may be a way out.

What if we could see that we have no right to that feeling of rightness? What if we were confronted, face-to-face, with the reality that the righteous indignation we want to lay claim to, we actually have no claim to at all? St. Paul makes it very clear in the second reading that “no one lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself” (Rom. 14:7). At the end of the day, “we are the Lord’s” (Rom. 14:8). We do not belong to ourselves—which means that nothing we have belongs to us, either. If nothing we have belongs to us, then even our anger and our grudges do not belong to us. If our anger and our grudges do not belong to us, they are not ours to keep. They are not ours to keep because we have been bought.

Jesus tells a parable today of an unforgiving servant. He has amassed a huge debt, and begs the king’s forgiveness. The king even grants him forgiveness. But the servant very quickly forgets how he has been forgiven. He forgets all about what he owes, and pays attention only to what he is owed. Except that the king has just assumed the servant’s debts, so whatever another servant owes to him is really owed to the king. If the servant had taken a moment to appreciate how his debt had been taken up, he would not have treated others as he did. The proper response would have been to say “your debt is no longer to me, but to the king—but just as he forgave me, so he might also forgive you.” The servant had been bought—his life was not his own, and his debts were not his own.

We have been bought, too. We were bought by the Paschal Mystery—the Passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The more we consider the Passion of Jesus, the more we can see what a price was paid for us. Jesus made up for our disobedience with His perfect obedience. He made up for our evilness by putting it in touch with His goodness. Other people may have done us wrong, but we’re no angels ourselves. We have done God wrong, Who only wanted what was best for us. As we think about the obedience we owe to God—but cannot give—we should see Jesus giving it for us. Our debt is not our own. Any feeling we may experience, that we somehow have a right to hold a grudge against another, should melt away when we think about how God could have held a grudge against us, but gave it up. We racked up a pretty substantial debt ourselves, and God not only forgave it, but raised us up to even greater glory by sending His Son. Given what has been done for us by God, we are not in the best position to complain about what has been done to us by humans.

No matter how much of a debt someone else racks up against us, it will never really compare to the debt we racked up against God. Thus Jesus tells Peter to “forgive not seven times but seventy-seven times” (Mt. 18:22). In other words: we do not keep score when we forgive, because it is really not our score to keep. If we remember this and show mercy, God will show mercy to us. If we insist on treating offenses like a matter of accounting, God will take us to account. But God does not want to take us to account. He wants to take our accounts on Himself. He wants to take the debts and the anger and the grudges onto Himself. Through the Cross, God not only set us free from worrying about any debt we might owe to Him, but from worrying about any debt another might owe to us. If we remember what the Cross has done for us, we can forgive and be set free.

______________

September 24th, 2017—Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: http://usccb.org/bible/readings/091717.cfm
Is. 55:6-9; Ps. 145:2-3, 8-9, 17-18; Phil. 1:20C-24, 27A; Mt. 20:1-16A

Most of us have met people like the workers who arrived first in today’s parable. People who are unhappy with the good things they have, unhappy with the good things others have, and generally skilled at letting everyone know about their unhappiness. As the workers complain, they make everything about them, and what they should receive. There is no thanks to the owner for giving them a fair wage (not always a given), and certainly no thanks to the owner for being generous with those who arrived late (all but unheard of). All that we hear from the workers who complain is envy and ingratitude.

Note that in the parable, we never see these workers asking the owner if they might have more on account of what they have done. The owner certainly gives no indication that they would receive anything but what was agreed upon. But on seeing how much the latecomers get, those who arrived first “thought that they would receive more” (Mt. 20:10). These workers have a system of justice all worked out in their heads, and simply take it for granted that the owner is thinking the same way. They take their idea for granted, and they take their increased wages for granted. They think that they are the ones who can set (and re-set) the terms of employment, and so are ungrateful when they receive their actual wages.

This ingratitude strikes at the heart of the problem. Because the first workers are ungrateful for what they have received in justice, they cannot appreciate what the last workers received in generosity. They think that the world should work a certain way, and so when it does not—even when they are not slighted—something is clearly wrong. Their ingratitude keeps them from seeing the good that they have, and keeps them from seeing the good that others have. All they can think of is how things are not as they would prefer.

St. Ignatius Loyola observed in a letter that ingratitude “is the cause, beginning, and origin of all evils and sins.” If we are ungrateful to God for what we have received, we can easily forget that we have received everything from Him, and just as easily forget that we received it out of God’s generosity. God gives us what we have out of love—because He thinks we would enjoy it. God created us out of nothing, and nothing is what God owes us. Before God created us, there was no “us” for God to owe something. There was no anything to be owed anything. What God did, God did out of pure delight and enjoyment.

Ingratitude risks cutting God out of the equation. We can easily forget God, and think we have what we have due to something else—perhaps even our own skills. Recall what the serpent said to Eve to tempt her and Adam: “you shall be as gods” (Gn. 3:5). If they ate the apple, they would no longer need God (or so they thought). They would be totally self-sufficient, and would have no need to be depend on anyone—or be grateful to anyone. If we are ungrateful, we can forget that there is anything to the world except what we are owed. We will try to be like gods unto ourselves, setting all the terms and conditions of life. And when God does not oblige, our reaction will be like that of the workers who arrived first: “how dare you!”

Just as the owner was able to uncover the ingratitude of the workers who arrived first, so God is able to uncover our own ingratitude. None of the conflict in the parable would have happened if the owner had not insisted on paying first those who arrived last. If the owner had paid everyone in the order they had arrived, the workers who had arrived first would have left the field long before the workers who had arrived last were paid. But the owner wanted them to see their ingratitude, and God wants us to see ours. There is no other way for us to fix it.

All throughout our lives, we will receive the same wages from God as those who we might think are less deserving. If I go to confession and confess to murder, I will hear the exact same words from the priest as if I go and confess to saying a bad word: “I absolve you.” At the start of Mass, we stand together and confess our sinfulness, asking prayers from one another to God for mercy. Everybody says the exact same prayer, no matter what they have done. And in prison chapels where people are held for any number of crimes, they, too say the exact same prayer. As it comes time to receive communion, the person who has just confessed and returned to the Church right before Mass, and the nun who has been striving for holiness her whole life, will both receive Jesus in the Eucharist. Everyone receives the same wages, because the point is not to reward me for who I am, but to change me into who Jesus is.

We receive the same wages and the same mercy when we go to church, and come to the sacraments. If we find ourselves unsettled by this fact, we have perhaps missed the point of the wages. We are not here to set the terms and conditions, but to be grateful and rejoice at what is given—not only to us, but to all those around us. On those occasions when we are unhappy at this, we should take a look at ourselves and ask why that is, and recognize how we are likewise undeserving of the things that God gives us. In the face of God’s abundant generosity and goodness, our response can only be one of thanks.

Deacon David C. Paternostro, S.J. About Deacon David C. Paternostro, S.J.

Deacon David C. Paternostro, S.J., is a member of the Central and Southern Province of Jesuits. He was ordained to the diaconate in 2016, and is currently studying for the S.T.L. at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley while also serving nearby at St. Mary Magdalen Catholic Church. Originally from Texas, he holds degrees in psychology and philosophy from Fordham University in New York, and an MDiv. from the Jesuit School of Theology. 

Comments

  1. Thank you, Deacon, these are really excellent and helpful homilies and models of homilies. You have a way, seemingly very “natural” to you, to offer God’s words in a simple, straightforward way that is also profound – touching the eternal and divine realities within. I hope that many homilists will gain from your examples.

    One addition I would ask you to consider, which I think you could include in ways very natural and fitting to the readings, would be this: to close with a bridge to the Altar of Sacrifice, and to the Holy Communion now approaching in the Mass. Such a bridge could be obvious, as with the first homily here, in your observation:
    “When Paul speaks of conversion in Romans, he is clear that we need a total conversion. He speaks of offering our “bodies as a living sacrifice” through “spiritual worship,” that worship which is guided by our minds, and is proper to thinking creatures (Rom. 12:1). Both our bodies and our minds—our whole selves—must be offered to God.”
    At the Altar, in union with the Self-Offering of Christ, such personal intentions of our own “living sacrifices” could help the participants in the Mass to more fully enter true “participation” in worship and Communion.

    Thank you again. These homilies are beautifully presented.

    • Deacon David Paternostro, S.J. says:

      Thomas,

      Thanks very much for your remarks. Your encouragement to look forward to the Eucharist in the homily is a point very well taken, and I will be sure and look for ways to do that in future homilies.

Trackbacks

  1. […] If we are honest with ourselves, we, too, can be shaken to our cores as we consider our weakness as St. Augustine did. We can see that there are moments when, like Peter, Jesus should rightly call us “Satan.” Even considering trivial matters like how few New Year’s resolutions we’ve kept (or how long until we discarded them), can show us how infirm our wills are, and how unreliable we are. If we are honest with our lives, we will see that sin and weakness are still very much a part of the picture. We long to experience God’s love and peace, but first we must let in God’s grace. We must be shaken from our attachment to the world, and renew our minds so that we can think as God does. If we can let ourselves be shaken, we can experience the conversion of mind that Paul calls for, and experience the refreshing presence of God. – Read the source: http://www.hprweb.com/2017/08/homilies-for-september-2017/ […]

  2. […] As with any work of mercy—spiritual or corporeal—success will always be a mixed bag. Jesus Himself says in today’s Gospel that there will be times when even the whole Church giving correction will not succeed. But if we can act with love from start to finish, and keep that love alive even when all correction fails, then there is still hope for the future. If the person corrected experiences our love throughout the experience, and knows that we still love them in the end, they might want to come around eventually. If the bonds of love still exist, then there can still be a relationship, there can still be some measure of personal influence on the other. And in the end, we can at least say to God “I have loved and cared about all of Your creatures, even when that care was not appreciated.” People will continue to be wrong—on the internet and elsewhere. Whatever we do, and whether we offer correction or not, we can at least act to keep love alive. – Read the source: http://www.hprweb.com/2017/08/homilies-for-september-2017/ […]

  3. […] No matter how much of a debt someone else racks up against us, it will never really compare to the debt we racked up against God. Thus Jesus tells Peter to “forgive not seven times but seventy-seven times” (Mt. 18:22). In other words: we do not keep score when we forgive, because it is really not our score to keep. If we remember this and show mercy, God will show mercy to us. If we insist on treating offenses like a matter of accounting, God will take us to account. But God does not want to take us to account. He wants to take our accounts on Himself. He wants to take the debts and the anger and the grudges onto Himself. Through the Cross, God not only set us free from worrying about any debt we might owe to Him, but from worrying about any debt another might owe to us. If we remember what the Cross has done for us, we can forgive and be set free. – Read the source: http://www.hprweb.com/2017/08/homilies-for-september-2017/ […]

  4. […] We receive the same wages and the same mercy when we go to church, and come to the sacraments. If we find ourselves unsettled by this fact, we have perhaps missed the point of the wages. We are not here to set the terms and conditions, but to be grateful and rejoice at what is given—not only to us, but to all those around us. On those occasions when we are unhappy at this, we should take a look at ourselves and ask why that is, and recognize how we are likewise undeserving of the things that God gives us. In the face of God’s abundant generosity and goodness, our response can only be one of thanks. – Read the source: http://www.hprweb.com/2017/08/homilies-for-september-2017/ […]

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